Room with a view

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Third Ward office design is way out of the box

For the majority of us, the office is a utilitarian environment where we show up, do our work, and go home. We don’t complain about glaring overhead lights, noise distractions, or confining cubicles parked at right angles which seem to block out the world around us.
After all, it’s an office, right? The message inherent in most office design is that work is an activity not meant to be enjoyed. With everything placed at right angles and uninspired colors covering the floors and walls, is it any wonder that people feel dull at work?
But for the relative few who have the good fortune to work in an inspirational office setting, the office environment is a source of energy from which creativity naturally flows. The medium is the message.
More often than not, advertising agencies are on the cutting edge of contemporary office design. That is certainly the case with Marx McClellan Thrun, a six-person agency in Milwaukee’s Third Ward.
From the moment one sets foot in the 4,000-square-foot space on the sixth floor of the Marshall Building, you realize this is an office that transcends the merely ordinary.
Marx McClellan Thrun’s low-ceilinged reception area, while modest, gives a hint of what lies ahead. Six black wooden icons affixed to the wall serve as metaphors for what the agency does. There is a bowling ball, a black cat, a dagger, dice – all which serve to illustrate the nature of the work that the agency juggles, says principal Rick Thrun.
"We’ve been successful because every day we juggle lots of dangerous things for some very special clients," Thrun says. "And yet we still manage to have some fun."
Heading from the reception area into the main office, the visitor is greeted by views of the Third Ward skyline which is visible through the large, old-fashioned casement-style windows. Two metallic stairwells lead to an office loft. Colorful portrait murals by local artist Tom Porter stand out against Cream City brick walls.
In another subtle but perceptible shift, nearly everything about the office is flowing at 45-degree or odd angles. Nothing is set up on traditional 90-degree lines. Even the odd-shaped cubicle walls take on this effect. Sight lines flow in virtually all directions.
"No matter where you are in here, you can see out," Thrun says. "We didn’t want to make people feel that they were walled off. At the same time, we also didn’t want to come up with a space that was overdesigned, or overdecorated.
Before the $43,000 remodeling was done in 1995, the agency occupied the office much as it was from the previous tenant, a photographer who both lived in the space and used it as his studio loft.
One of the primary goals for remodeling the wide open space was to give everyone his or her own workspace while maintaining the feeling of openness and light.
Taken together, the overall feel of the office is one of airiness combined with industrial chic. Throw in some imaginative interior design elements, and you’ve got an office that positively oozes the feeling that cool advertising concepts are just waiting to be born.
The office was designed over three years ago by Ed Miller of the Winters Design Group, who also helped agency principals Rick Thrun and Laura Marx remodel their 1935 home. Miller credits Thrun with helping him take some of his ideas to the next level.
"I think they needed a space that lets their clients know that they are in the right place if they are looking for innovative ideas and exciting artwork," says Miller, who won the National Remodeling Industry Association’s Contractor of the Year Award in 1996 for his work on the office.
"We didn’t want people to walk in and get the impression that six people are sitting at Macintosh computers doing design work," Miller says. "We wanted to convey a sense of energy, that this is a place that is not static. For the customer/client, this space shows that members of the agency are not status-quo thinkers."
Marx McClellan Thrun’s clients include Johnson Controls, Briggs & Stratton, Motorola, Concours Motors and Lake Park Bistro.
A kitchen the photographer put in has been retained, and works well as a separate area within the redesigned space. Brick walls that were painted white were sandblasted.
"It was too ’60s/’70s, kind of ‘pop’ looking," Miller recalls. "It needed to be updated to the ’90s into something more refined."
One of the first moves made by Miller and Thrun was to carpet over the checkerboard pattern linoleum floor
"We wanted to convey a sense of energy, that this is a place that is not static."
– Ed MIller, Winters Design Group
that dominated the space. Not only did the carpet provide sound abatement, but it gave the space a more professional look, Thrun said.
The large pillars that stand in the room were painted gray, as was the ceiling. Industrial-type lights hang off the pillars and point skyward. Steel cables fan out across the ceiling like spokes from a wheel, giving it added visual texture.
Partition walls are painted in warm colors like eggplant and terra cotta. Placement of corrugated steel on curved surfaces and glass block in random, but strategic, order inside dividing walls adds an element of sophistication.
Two metal stairways lead up to the loft. One of the stairways is surrounded by curved partition walls which play off the rounded walls at the top of the stairs, providing the staircase with a more cohesive look.
Thrun’s design studio looks out over the floor below. Marx has her own separate office with a door on the first floor, as she performs a lot of the nitty-gritty financial work for the firm which requires a higher level of privacy. Jagged-edge concrete panels with steel reinforcing bars protruding are placed at the front of the loft near Thrun’s office. The fractured panels perched at the top of the loft are meant to create the abstract feeling of being in a deconstruction zone.
There are several conference rooms, including a more formal one off the reception room that, in reality, is anything but formal in terms of design. Suspended industrial-style lightning aimed down at the table is the dominant feature of the room, which has Cream City brick walls. The other conference area is in a partially enclosed space in the main room. On a steel table, this is where much of the decision-making for the group takes place on Monday mornings. Clients and vendors are also brought here.
"We wanted to make it a place that clients would enjoy coming to," Thrun says. "When vendors and other people that we work with come here, it’s a place they remember."

May 1998 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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